By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLAND, Va. —
It has been 23 years since the Bland County boys basketball team advanced to the state tournament.
Does the current batch of Bears have what it takes to end that drought?
“Absolutely,” Bland County head coach Rich Hankins said. “These kids have been through some tough times. We started four freshmen and they have gotten better every single year.
“These kids have worked their tails off to get to this point and they are going to kick back and realize one of these days that all this hard work is going to pay off for them.”
That time has arrived.
“We should be really good, we should win a lot of games and we have the capability of making a postseason run and we should,” said Hankins’ son, Chase, who is one of three Bland County seniors who will likely be 1,000 point scorers before the season ends.
“We think it is finally our turn. We are excited, we are ready to go, ready to get started.”
Rich Hankins has been on the sidelines at Bland County for most of the last 25 years, leading the Bears to state quarterfinal appearances in 1989 and 1990. He would like to get back, and this team could make it happen.
“I have been blessed, I really have,” Hankins said. “This is a tremendous joy for me to hang in there and coach these kids. They keep me young, so to speak … . I would like to get back (to state) one more time anyway.”
That may have been in Hankins’ thinking four years ago when he sent four freshmen, Asher Dillow, Darryl Clark, John Miller and his son, Chase, on the floor for varsity competition. The result was predictable. The Bears won two games.
“As a freshman we came out and got beat to death every game pretty much,” Chase Hankins said. “We had to take it, but it is all a learning experience. We had to start at the bottom and work our way up and we are going to be there.”
That season was followed by eight wins as sophomores and 13 last year, finishing with a 13-13 record, falling one game short of the state tournament in a Region C semifinal loss to eventual two-time state champion Galax.
The expectations are much higher this season.
“We want to make it to state,” Clark said. “That is our goal for this year.”
There is plenty of motivation. The Bland County girls program played in the state tournament three years in a row, even reaching the Division 1 finals in 2009.
There are signs in the Bland High School gymnasium with the exploits of teams listed under a large sign for each of the sports played there, and there are plenty of honors for the girls. There are not as many for the boys.
“We want to get something on that wall over there underneath the ‘Boys Basketball’ sign,” Clark said.
Bland County has started the season with a 7-3 record, losing a pair of close games to high-scoring Floyd County and another at Tazewell. Up next is a visit tonight from Richlands, followed by the Mountain Empire District opener on Friday against Narrows.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t beat teams if we play the way I know we can,” Dillow said.
They have done just that for much of the season, and expect that to continue.
“We are very capable of going very far this year,” Clark said. “We just have to rebound the ball, play good defense and hit our open shots.”
They can all make shots. Clark joined Dillow as a 1,000-point scorer earlier this season, and Hankins isn’t far from the same mark. That trio has played together since grade school, and it shows on the court.
“I have played with them guys since we were in the fourth or fifth grade,” Dillow said. “I know what they are capable of and if they play like I know they can we are going to be really tough.”
Having three 1,000-point scorers is a rarity on any team, but especially on a team created from a pair of schools — Bland and Rocky Gap — so small they have to be combined into one for athletics.
“It is unusual, it came together right, all the same age and everything,” Chase Hankins said. “We have been here for four years now and we had to take our own beatings. It is time to dish them out now.”
Clark added, “It has been a pleasure. We have been together all our lives pretty much and we just keep growing up together, it should be a good year.”
No one enjoys them more than Rich Hankins.
“They don’t come around very often at all,” Hankins said. “These three kids, as good a basketball players as they are, they are much better human beings, much better young men than they are basketball players and that means a lot.”
Basketball is king in Bland County. The Eagles and Rockets built a tradition before the athletic teams became one, led by Alice Neal at Rocky Gap and Joe Stiltner at Bland, and the community continues to support their Bears. No matter whether the games are played at Bland or Rocky Gap, the gyms are packed.
“I don't know wherever else I would rather play than here,” Dillow said. “As far as district games I haven’t seen a bigger crowd than here, I think we have the biggest turnout.
“It is the sport here, we haven’t done great, but the more games we win, it seems like every year we get more and more people.”
Those loyal Bland County fans did the same when the Lady Bears made their three-year run to state tourneys, led by another Hankins, Laurel, who is now playing at Roanoke College.
“She had a lot of great memories out of it and we are going to make our own,” said Chase Hankins, who grew up watching his sister become a star in a small town.
“It is tough growing up when your older siblings do so well, but Chase has handled it very, very well,” added Rich Hankins. “I think that experience alone will help him once he gets into the college experience himself.”
Not only did his sister take the Bears to new heights, but Chase also plays for his dad, which can be good and bad.
“It is different, that is for sure. We both takes hits at each other every now and then, but that is part of it. It is difficult, but it’s a ride,” said Hankins, who is averaging 15.9 points per game this season, including games of 32, 26, and 20 points.
“We usually try to leave it here, sometimes we will talk about it at home, but nothing too intense.”
That is the way Rich Hankins likes it. Laurel was a standout at Bland County, and Chase has the potential — much like Dillow and Clark — to follow her footsteps to the next level.
“Chase is finally stepping into his own a little bit,” Rich Hankins said. “He has been absolutely a joy to work with. That father-son relationship isn’t always easy, but he has just been a tremendous blessing to me.”
So have all the seniors. They can score from anywhere, led by Dillow, who is averaging 25.7 points a contest, including games of 34, 27, 26, 24 (twice), 23, 22 and 20 (twice) points this year for the Bears.
“My grandpa has had me in here since I was a kid shooting every day,” said Dillow, of current Bland County assistant coach Charlie Puckett.
“Asher is just a warrior,” added Rick Hankins. “He just hates to lose. He has got a competitive fire about him that just comes out every single day. He just hates to lose.”
Dillow knows what must happen to keep those losses from happening, and it’s not just scoring points. There is also defense and rebounding, which — if the Bears do have weakness — it is a lack of size.
“We are going to have to hit shots when they are there, and we are going to have to play really, really good defense because we don’t have much size in the middle,” Dillow said. “We have to get good pressure on the ball, force a lot of turnovers and get some easy baskets.”
Clark is the same type of player. He connected on the 1,000th point of his career early last month, but is willing to do whatever the Bears need. He is averaging 12.6 points a game, reaching as many as 27 points in a win over Tazewell.
“I hit some open shots, hit a few floaters, play good defense, get a lot of steals and rebounds,” Clark said. “I try to contribute to everything I can.”
“He plays with all heart,” added Rich Hankins. “He is just a tremendous player and kind of wears those emotions on his sleeve. He plays with a lot of passion.”
While that trio can be expected to produce every night, that is far from all the Bears. Rich Hankins likes the supporting cast, which includes fellow senior John Miller, and expects them to only improve as the season progresses. According to Chase Hankins, that process has begun.
“They are stepping up,” Chase Hankins said. “Every day in practice they are out here working their butts off and they are behind us every step of the way so they have got us.”
“They work really hard and their attitudes are great,” added Rich Hankins. “They are just going to get nothing, but get better.”
While Bland County might be small in size, basketball is their passion and the Bears are the only game in town. That means there will be large crowds from students and community support at all their games, and that is definitely appreciated.
“We have been beat all the pieces from our freshman year and now we are here,” Dillow said. “There is a lot of student energy, the students at school have just been really excited about this year and I am excited too.”
“It is really fun, and it is exciting,” added Clark. “We hope to get more fans out through the year, get some wins, and get some people come out and see what we can do.”
Chase Hankins still remembers how packed the bleachers were when the Lady Bears were making their run. They can be expected to provide the same support to the male Bears.
“The fans are going to get behind us, Bland County, they will do it,” Chase Hankins said. “When Laurel played Bland County emptied out to go to the state so it should be interesting, it is going to be exciting.
“They are excited. They will be behind us. It should be a good season.”
— Contact Brian Woodson at